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Romanticising Something Terrible

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Oct. 24, 2020
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Who doesn't love pirates?

Kids love to dress up as them in Halloween or during carnival season. There was whole a whole era of Hollywood where pirate movies were the blockbuster vein of gold. Pirates in fiction are charming, fun, dastardly, and the epitome of adventure.

Pirates in real life on the other hand, are nightmare fuel that only spells death, slavery, or worse- or all three.

How about assassins? From John Wick to Assassin's Creed, they also hold an allure and charm of danger and dexterity, of skill and power that engages us in movies and art in general.

Assassins in real life on the other hand are anything but charming, and they'll probably engage you only in a trip to the morgue.

Why does this discrepancy exist? Why do we love to hear tales of people that are objectively criminals- professional criminals at that- as if we are all victims to some kind of artistic Stockholm Syndrome?

In my opinion it is because the fictional pirates, assassins, mobsters and gunrunners or world-class thieves are nothing like the real thing: they are archetypes symbolizing completely different things than the actual crime they are committing for a living.

The pirate is the symbol of unharnessed adventure: unbound by laws, able to travel anywhere with impunity, free as a spirit and free to take and enjoy what he/she wants. We also bestow the fictional pirates with their own ‘creed’, their own set of laws by which they abide, and not those of regular society.

Who doesn't want complete freedom and minimal accountability, or what accountability there is to be on his/her own terms?

The assassin is often that, too: someone who is above the law. An angel of death, unbound by constraints of regular society and its laws or admonitions. The assassin is also the perfect revenge fantasy.

Who hasn't wished death upon someone who hurt them badly enough for the hurt to inspire such rage?

It's not accidental that assassins also tend to have a ‘code of honor’ of their own (it doesn't matter if they call it that or not), that gives them their own special morality to which they staunchly and distinctly abide.


It's not the crime that is being glorified, but the capacity to break the bonds of society for one reason or another, to fulfill a need that we feel society is keeping us from fulfilling. That's why such stories and such characters are so alluring, and will never stop alluring us- provided of course, that they're written at least decently.

And you know what? That's just fine- so long as fiction remains separate from reality.

Do you have such characters? Have you liked such characters yourself as a fan?

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comment

anonymous?

Ashley.Grenstone at 11:07AM, Oct. 25, 2020

How about when Halloween stores sell costumes of Indigenous people (Aboriginal or 'Indian' state side), in which the costumes mash up a mix of cultures and stereotypes of indigenous people and continue to be sold year after year, during the fall season.

PaulEberhardt at 9:43AM, Oct. 25, 2020

The same longing for escape gave us badass Wild West gunslingers, every fantasy genre, most scifi genres, rock'n'roll, metal, medieval markets and many other cool things. Some people think of escapism as just low entertainment blah blah yadda yadda, but imho they're dead wrong. It’s the very root of imaginative storytelling and often enough a necessary counterbalance. In this context, I believe the special appeal of pirates and outlaws is that they're much edgier, grittier characters than knights in shining armour or evil spirits, who are just good or bad, respectively. They introduce a fascinating shade of grey without being overly complex and most of all without sacrificing the underlying daydream about a world where things are relatively clear-cut.

PaulEberhardt at 9:35AM, Oct. 25, 2020

It’s quite improbable that the real Störtebeker would have ever been here, considering that he had no conceivable connection to this place and that to get here it’d have taken him days of sailing upriver, past his enemies in Bremen and always an easy target for basically everything late medieval warfare had to offer. Still it’s a fact that the legends about Störtebeker have been around since his lifetime and have all the ingredients the best pirate romanticism is made of. My point is that glorifying pirates goes right back to the time when privateers were still very much a gruesome reality. There is probably no period in history when people haven’t longed to escape the oppression and monotony of their lives, as well as giving the authorities a finger. People went to sea because of this, even if reality clearly begged to differ, and becoming a pirate to one-up it certainly seemed an option. The biographies of Anne Bonny and Mary Read would be another point in case.

PaulEberhardt at 9:35AM, Oct. 25, 2020

My home town chose as its local hero a legendary medieval pirate called Klaus Störtebeker. His reputation in the whole of Northern Germany is similar to that of Robin Hood, except of course in Hanseatic towns like Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck or Stralsund, whose ships he kept raiding. Where I live, he is credited for feeding the poor and donating the stained-glass windows in the cathedral in accordance with his catchphrase “God’s friend and all the world’s enemy”. Each year on Laetare Sunday, there is a public charity event where bread and pickled herrings are given away for free in his name. This is done by an actor playing the pirate, who traditionally takes the opportunity to give the politicians that have been invited as guests of honour a cutting earful – being an outlaw on his annual day off from the afterlife, he has the perfect freedom to say everything no one else would dare to say. (Of course the event didn't take place this year, but we could donate by bank transfer.)

mks_monsters at 8:51AM, Oct. 25, 2020

I think it's a very gray area. On one hand, there are things you shouldn't romanticise altogether because it leads to nothing but trouble. On the other hand, people said the same things about other stuff.

Gunwallace at 12:18AM, Oct. 25, 2020

Lawyers. There are so many films and TV shows where lawyers are heroic. That seems beyond the pale to me.

meemjar at 8:06PM, Oct. 24, 2020

There actually were ethical pirates too. They were called Buccaneers. It was derived from the French word 'Boucanier' which was a loose word for pig hunter/herders (Baconeers). They were robbed by the corrupt government of the colonies of their pig herds and so took to piracy to gain back what was taken. Thus they developed a reputation of being more merciful than other pirates as they spared poor passengers and sailors of their meager belongings and only robbed the wealthy or the ships officers, like sea-going Robin Hoods, as they sometimes took care of the unfortunate.

meemjar at 8:06PM, Oct. 24, 2020

To continue from my previous thread below: Also, the navy and merchant vessels of the time weren't so innocent. The one form of disciplined not practiced on a pirate ship was flogging. Flogging was employed on the navy and merchant ships and crewmen were flogged senseless of the pettiest of infractions and it was thoroughly hated as most pirates were defected sailors. The one exception was; when pirates plundered a ship they discreetly asked the crew as to what kind of men the captain and officers were. If they were bullies and brutes the pirates flogged them gleefully, right in front of the crew.

hushicho at 3:56PM, Oct. 24, 2020

That's not to say that I disagree with the caution of romanticizing something terrible, though. And I agree, we must distinguish between fantasy and reality. What we see and what is written, to establish a fictional world, is what we have to take to assess who is good and who is bad in any story. It is that verisimilitude and consistency within itself that is so essential for any story to be taken seriously. We cannot just insert things from our own world because the creator has failed to give us that information. It is not the same world.

hushicho at 3:54PM, Oct. 24, 2020

Good and evil are not absolutes, which is a fundamental mistake made by many, many creators. Even looking at, for example, in Pirates of the Caribbean, from which you've drawn your graphic, Captain Jack Sparrow is far better than the corrupt and frankly evil society he has rejected, and he is furthermore admirable because he is a consistent character, has a consistent moral and ethical standard, and is furthermore the most interesting person in the whole story. It is always a mistake to put any society on a pedestal, especially if you're trying to compare someone outside of it unfavorably. Society and order are not by default good or even desirable, and in many cases, it's the people outside of "normal" society that are more interesting, have more integrity, and are more able to keep a story engaging and moving.

marcorossi at 3:33PM, Oct. 24, 2020

Imho we have still some animal instincts, that we control because of society. One of these instincts is alpha maling. We ned carachters in stories who act out the things we instinctively would like to do, but can't, but to create such carachters we are forced to think to people who go against our moral limits, so people like criminals, assassins etc., Who go well beyond alpha maling in terms of aggressivity.

KAM at 5:50AM, Oct. 24, 2020

It kind of depends on how you show them going about their business. The honorable pirate who only goes after worse pirates or evil enemy ships. Superheroes are vigilantes who only go after obviously evil people. In my comic Gertrude & Brunhilda started off as parodies of Conan-type adventurers, but when I had Nikki team-up with them I realized that in a modern world setting they would be seen as thieves, which changed how I thought about, and wrote, them. Show your pirate lead sinking a boatload of women and children you lose the reader's sympathy.

usedbooks at 4:03AM, Oct. 24, 2020

And changed suave to shave. Ugh.

usedbooks at 4:01AM, Oct. 24, 2020

I'm going to yeet my spell check for changing all my plurals to possessives.

usedbooks at 4:00AM, Oct. 24, 2020

Used Books has retired assassin's. The active assassin's are villains and range from empowered serial killers to violent former military. For the most part, I just have characters who "buy into" romanticized notions of things rather than embody them. One protagonist thought cat burglars were glamorous and tried to become one. He had the skill but not the heart. Likes to be shave but not steal things, so the "career" didn't pan out. I have an antagonist who is obsessed with pirates. He himself is charming and charismatic, but also completely materialistic with no regard for human life. Fun to meet, terrifying to know. My running character theme is that everyone has a facade. That itself is somewhat romanticized, but to be a villain that can continue to villain, you cannot show your true nature. That's why real life bad guys are *usually* caught rather quickly. They do a horrible thing, but they slip up. It doesn't make for good fiction.

usedbooks at 3:50AM, Oct. 24, 2020

Watching true crime documentaries definitely demystifies "hit men" and "private detectives." Lol. Like oz said, all professions (even legit careers) are romanticized in fiction. Archaeology, biology, astronaut, priest... Reality is just a whole lot more boring and also people's with plain, ugly, and fat folks, not glamorous people. Even (especially) the world of espionage and intelligence. You can't be a glamorous spy. Ugly flies under the radar easier. Real life villains are plain and skeevy people too. They are not hyper intelligent or charming, for the most part. (Some envision themselves as such, but that's narcissism for you. A confident narcissist can trick victims, though.)

bravo1102 at 3:48AM, Oct. 24, 2020

Battle of the Robofemoids has a send-up of pirates with the space pirates that includes a Jedi as well as that fellow from those Disney Caribbean movies. There is a hired killer character in Sword of Kings sort of a fantasy mix of the Western hired gun and an assassin, but he's hardly romantic. It's intentional that he looks a lot like that anti-hero actor Rutger Hauer. I play with tropes and the actors who have some to personify them on screen. Few ever notice but it's all quite intentional on my part.

bravo1102 at 1:42AM, Oct. 24, 2020

But there were colorful eccentric types who did it and were very much bigger than life. So the fiction make every one of their number these bucklers of swash.

bravo1102 at 1:39AM, Oct. 24, 2020

Hasish smoking fanatical Islamic followers of a mysterious old man in the mountains hardly makes for romantic fiction. But like the Thugs and ninja they existed, infiltrated, spied and killed. They were the pre modern department of dirty tricks as Churchil would call his own practitioners of such acts, the SOE and various MI branches. At one point Holy Mother Church had her own insular group of such spies, the Jesuits. They have their own mythology.

bravo1102 at 1:29AM, Oct. 24, 2020

Pirates were seen as nasty and brutish all like Blackbeard until the book Treasure Island and Howard Pyle's wonderful illustrations romanticized them. It's ironic that the actor who really created the whole "talk like a pirate " in the movies played both Long John Silver and Blackbeard. In the heyday of piracy there were gentleman pirates just out for adventure and a quick fortune. Pirates often worked hand in hand with corrupt colonial officials until the crown caught up to them. With all the on going European wars one could be a legal privateer and then a treaty is signed thousands of miles away and suddenly one is a pirate. The history is murky and more interesting than the Hollywood.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:03AM, Oct. 24, 2020

I've found that many of my main characters are deviants of some sort, to some degree. Obviously my most recognicable one, as of now, is Molly Lusc who balances on the line of being an outright criminal, a line she will even cross at times, but ultimately she acts with a conscience. In the first story arc in my newest installment "Imsies the Imthology" you will see a main character who is a thief, assassin and somewhat of a dark sorcerer, who begins his journey as an active antagonist to the theocratic society he was brought up in. I'm also planning to set up a fourth comic (possibly the final one, cutting down the original seven comics I had planned to four, part because I could incorperate the three others in Imsies the Imthology, and part to make updates less spread out), possibly next week, where all the heroes are--well--pirates^^ I LOVE pirates in fiction. They are my absolute favourite kind of rogue in the world of fiction^^

Ozoneocean at 10:24PM, Oct. 23, 2020

Old west Gunfighters, Mercenaries, Detectives, Bountyhunters, Spys, and Indiana Jones style adventurer/explorers all have that sort of cache and romantic conotations even though the reailty was a lot less glamerous! You are right, the fictional versions are fantasies that have little to do with reality. They're symbolic.


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